National chauvinism and xeno-racism

David Bates examines evolution of ruling class ideology

Recent developments in the Labour Party’s leadership contest mark what is possibly a new symbolic low for the UK’s largest (bourgeois) workers’ party, for never has the political imperative of being ‘tough’ on immigration occupied quite such a prominent place within Labour.

Of all the issues on which to campaign in the current period, it is surely a mark of how politically bankrupt much of the party hierarchy has become that they should select immigration. Indeed, the decision of soft-left MP Diane Abbott to join the race was prompted by this very observation. As she lamented shortly after announcing her candidacy, “One of the things that made me run was hearing candidate after candidate saying that immigration lost us the election.”[1]

This fixation with immigration raises important questions as to how socialists and communists should position themselves in relation to the issue at a time when many of the workers and activists to which we appeal will undoubtedly be influenced by the negative anti-migrant rhetoric. One such question hinges on a clarification of terms: just what exactly is the character of this hostility to immigration? And does it constitute a form racism?

Open and closed

It was Gordon Brown’s former treasury protégé Ed Balls who got the ball rolling early in June, producing an opinion-piece for The Guardian ominously titled, ‘We were wrong to allow so many eastern Europeans in Britain’.[2] Former New Labour architect Balls argued that, whilst “free movement of goods and services works to our mutual advantage ... the free movement of labour is another matter entirely”. Using the well-worn tactic of invoking feelings and conditions of ‘the workers’ in arguments against immigration, Balls continued that, despite the economic gains for the UK of eastern European migration, “there has also been a direct impact on the wages, terms and conditions of too many people - in communities ill-prepared to deal with the reality of globalisation”.

Balls’ comments are revealing for a number of reasons. First is the obvious point that falling wages, terms and conditions of employment are not the inevitable consequences of a mysterious and malicious phenomenon known as ‘immigration’ - and Balls knows this very well. The migration of thousands of workers from one place to another is an ancient phenomenon which, indeed, occurs habitually within the UK without any social or economic disruption at all, particularly in boom times. Declining wages et al are a separate matter.

Such trends have arisen as part of a conscious process whereby the ‘rights’ of capital are ruthlessly advanced at the expense of working class people by successive governments wedded to neoliberal policies, exercised in a socially authoritarian manner under Thatcher and with a more state-managerial approach under Blair and Brown. Ed Balls is a fierce advocate of exactly the policies which do most to harm workers’ rights - privatisation, deregulation, curtailing of union rights - and his decision to focus on immigration therefore represents not only a pandering to populist prejudice, but also a cynical diversion from the real issues.

Another interesting aspect of Balls’ intervention is that it highlights how ruling class attitudes towards immigration differ from one moment to the next. ‘Open borders’ capitalists - with whom Balls himself identified until very recently - might be said to favour the fairly free movement of labour at all times, for it provides them with a steady supply of workers to exploit. ‘Closed borders’ capitalists, on the other hand, are often so wedded to the ideologies of ‘race’ and nationalism - crucial in the development of capitalism and imperialism - that they stubbornly cling to the idea that the admission of individual migrants should only occur when it is unquestionably of benefit to ‘the nation’ (meaning not only the national wealth, but also its dominant bourgeois values and culture). The Daily Mail offers many examples of the latter, being rhetorically hostile to almost any immigration, regardless of its economic benefits.

The important point to note, however, is that these positions are far from mutually exclusive; each prevails at different moments and is often championed by the same advocates operating in different political and economic circumstances. The British ruling class, for example, is notoriously cynical in this regard: throwing its doors open at one moment and slamming them closed the next. Even Enoch Powell once favoured the influx of migrant workers to oil the cogs of British post-war capitalism.

Yet, even as immigration proceeds as official policy, such as it did during the economic boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s, the anti-immigration lobby’s drum beats ominously in the background, ready to be embraced by the mainstream forces of capital whenever growth slows down and the ‘reserve army’ is no longer needed. The exclusionary discourses of ‘race’ and nation are forever available in this way and have a strong emotional pull in Britain - especially on the Conservative right, in the tabloid press and among assorted nationalists, fascists and far-right patriots.

Communalism and ethnicism

Balls’ outburst needs to be seen in the wider context of a rightward shift on issues on ‘race’ and immigration which became increasingly evident in New Labour’s final years in government. It has long been noted that Labour’s core working class vote in the former industrial heartlands declined steadily, as the party embraced the key economic tenets of Thatcherism. Balls is only the latest in a long line of Labour figures to have realised that the party’s failure to provide a class analysis has led to a situation whereby many former Labour voters embrace nationalist and xenophobic explanatory frameworks. As we noted above, Balls’ market-friendly politics prevent him from challenging these myths head on, so, like Margaret Hodge and Hazel Blears before him, all he can do is pander to popular prejudice and embrace the very narrative that gives the British National Party succour.

The stark reality facing mainstream politicians after the European elections in 2009 was that nearly four million votes had gone to parties like the UK Independence Party, the BNP and the English Democrats, whose flagship policies were based on the premise that the UK’s political democracy and economy were being undermined by foreign laws, foreign institutions and foreign people. Even the first stirrings of spontaneous industrial unrest on a nationwide scale in the UK assumed a distinctly nationalistic tone, with the key issues at stake almost completely subsumed in the overt nationalist chauvinism of the slogan, ‘British jobs for British workers’, a sentiment long promoted by rightwing newspapers and politicians - and now by workers and trade union leaders on picket lines up and down the country.

This should come as little surprise, given that the promotion of national, ethnic and communal identities at the expense of class identities has always been the policy of the British establishment, even more so since the Labour Party abandoned its role as representative of the workers in favour of an alliance with Murdoch and the Confederation of British Industry. On the one hand, there has been the strategic promotion of a ‘popular nationalism’ for consumption by the workers, whose aim is to unite the population across class lines and secure its allegiance to the ‘national interest’ of capital. On the other hand, a bourgeois ‘race relations’ strategy has been implemented which aims to protect minorities from overt racial discrimination, but maintain the divisions of ‘race’, culture and religion as a bulwark against class-based organisation which may challenge the more structural dimensions of ‘racial’ disadvantage.

As academic Phil Cohen has written, the popular nationalism of the working class can itself be seen as a form of resistance against the corruption of wider capitalist society, as the ‘nation of the workers’ - with its own sense of history, culture and territory - sees itself as embodying the kind of common decency and ‘backbone’ that the nation of the bourgeoisie and the government lacks. Yet, when crisis bites, says Cohen, working class communities find their identities challenged: “It is not because immigrants are actually undermining their standard of living,” he argues, “but because their entry into and across the local labour or housing market signifies the fact that the working class does not, in fact, own or control either jobs or neighbourhoods, that the immigrant presence is found intolerable.”[3]

Against the somewhat clichéd argument that British racism is a device employed by the ruling class to divide the workers, Cohen insists that working class racism is “a popular ideology which forges a real division between two imaginary ruling classes”. It follows that in the absence of a political programme that can unite these different communities (and their “imaginary ruling classes”) against the governing consensus of capital, they will continue to see each other as rivals competing for diminishing jobs and services.

Such divisions have been strengthened in the last 30 years by the introduction of policies which amount to a form of state-sanctioned communalism or ‘ethnicism’. As the Institute of Race Relation’s Jenny Bourne has recounted, the official policy of multiculturalism was formulated by governments from the 1980s onwards largely as a response to the ‘racial’ violence which broke out in British inner cities during the same period.[4] This form of multiculturalism - which saw government and local authority funding directed at voluntary organisations defined along ethnic and cultural lines - not only ignored the economic and institutionally racist dimensions of existing inequalities, but actually fostered their entrenchment, including the patriarchal chauvinism of unelected ‘community leaders’ patronised by the state.

It is not beyond the realms of possibility, as we shall see below, that the promotion of these ‘ethnicist’ policies in recent decades, aided by the promotion of British patriotism and nationalism by politicians and tabloids, has been a factor in the re-emergence of a new self-consciously ‘white’ identity.


New Labour’s specific contribution to this state of affairs was to pander to the crude racism of The Sun and the Daily Mail by boasting of its harsh treatment of refugees, belittling the existence of institutional racism, stigmatising Muslims as potential terrorists and promoting a faith-based approach to community cohesion which bolstered religious identities and risked causing further communal division among working class communities. All this in a context of rising material inequality and unemployment at home and imperialist belligerence abroad meant that the ground was fertile for the kind of nationalist, anti-immigration upsurge described above.

Some commentators have referred to this phenomena as ‘xeno-racism’, a designation strongly criticised by Peter Manson in the pages of the Weekly Worker last year. Liz Fekete of the IRR, for example, quotes its director, A Sivanandan, who wrote as long ago as 2001: “It is a racism ... that cannot be colour-coded, directed as it is at poor whites as well, and is therefore passed off as xenophobia, a ‘natural’ fear of strangers. But in the way it denigrates and reifies people before segregating and/or expelling them, it is a xenophobia that bears all the marks of the old racism. It is racism in substance, but ‘xeno’ in form. It is a racism that is meted out to impoverished strangers even if they are white. It is xeno-racism.”[5]

However, the CPGB’s Peter Manson argued that ‘racism’ in the old sense of the word did not come into it. “Racism, like anti-Semitism, and anti-Catholicism before it, no longer serves the interests of the state. Today, with the empire long dismantled, a rearticulated national chauvinism aims to cohere the entire population - black and white - around the class interests of British capital, defined in opposition to the interests of ‘outsiders’.”[6]

Peter Manson is certainly right up to a point - the British state indeed has no use for some of the crude racisms of old, many of which can be actively counterproductive in the struggle for capitalist hegemony today. Exclusionary measures need not be based on appeals to ‘race’ at all, provided that national membership is sufficiently widened to include the second and third generation migrants once deemed as outsiders. However, it is important to add that this is not always the case and Sivanandan’s definition of ‘xeno-racism’ is worth defending on a couple of counts. The key to understanding its relevance lies in an examination of the strongly contested concept of ‘race’.

The key point is that ‘race’ itself is a highly malleable term which, given that it has no basis in biology, can apply to almost any social group seen to be culturally distinguishable from those who seek to exclude them. Scientists long ago discredited the theory that ‘races’ exist in the traditional sense of the word, for genetic traits are as variable within the so-called ‘races’ as they are between them. In other words, it makes no more sense to divide people into races by their skin colour or bone structure than it would to divide them by their height, eye colour, hair colour or home town. As the Marx-influenced academic Robert Miles put it, ‘race’ is better understood as “the ideological moment in a process of domination.”[7]

It was the product of a post-enlightenment world in which every aspect of nature and humankind was scrutinised and classified with all the tools at early modern science’s disposal. Out of this emerged a racial pseudo-science which became a useful way of justifying the exploitation of subordinate groups in the British empire - including blacks, Jews, Irish, women and even the English working class, all of whom were said to belong to separate and inferior racial stock than that of the ruling class.

Its legacy lives on to this day. Although hostility towards European migrant workers is ostensibly colour-blind, it nevertheless draws upon exclusionary discourses that have been used to stigmatise earlier groups of migrants on ‘racial’ grounds. “Collectivising features,” argues French Marxist Etienne Balibar, “will be set up as stigmata for exteriority and impurity, whether these relate to style of life, beliefs or ethnic origins.”[8] This can certainly be seen in press coverage of newly arrived migrant workers. Seen less as workers than as Poles or immigrants, they become marked out by language and culture (or the sheer fact of not being born in the UK) and stigmatised for attributes such as ‘fecklessness’, dishonesty or greed - all accusations levelled against earlier generations of migrants, and spoken as if they are fixed, essential and immutable. It is better, then, to speak not of ‘racism’ but of groups being racialised.

The ‘white working class’?

One alarming development in the recent history of racialisation is the re-emergence of a ‘white’ working class identity among workers who see themselves as having separate and distinct interests from non-white Britons and particularly Muslims. It has been encouraged by everyone from Sir Andrew Green of rightwing pressure group Migration Watch to former communities secretary Hazel Blears, who declared last year: “White working class people living on estates sometimes just don’t feel anyone is listening or speaking up for them.”

A season of programming on BBC television just months prior to the 2009 elections shed further light on this ‘new white identity’ when a BBC-Populus opinion poll found that 49% of white Britons identified more with people of a similar ethnic or religious background than they did with people of a similar class background - as opposed to 34% who identified with people of the same class regardless of ethnicity; 52% considered nationality an important signifier of identity, compared with 24% for class. Depressingly, 75% considered class unimportant, while 82% agreed that new immigrants had put added pressure on public services like schools, hospitals and public housing at a time when they were overstretched as it is.[9]

But to speak of a ‘white working class’ and its sense of grievance without strong qualification is both highly problematic and socially divisive. It should be noted that objectively there is no white working class, but rather a section of workers who perceive themselves to be ‘white’ and use this racial categorisation as a prism through which to understand their place in the world. As cultural critic Richard Dyer put it, “white people are neither literally or symbolically white” but have been ‘coloured’ or ‘raced’ as part of a social process which attributes certain qualities to certain visible human features.

It is vital that communists expose this process and adopt a principled position which insists that the division of working class people into ‘races’ - whether they be based on skin colour, nationality or religion - is both divisive and counterproductive in the struggle for the eradication of racism and the class system it helps to sustain. This includes the adoption of a position which favours the right of people to move freely within and across national borders and be accorded democratic rights regardless of language, culture or religion.


  1. www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/may/20/diane-abbott-labour-leader
  2. www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/jun/06/ed-balls-europe-immigration-labour
  3. P Cohen, S Bains Multi-racist Britain Basingstoke 1988, p34.
  4. www.irr.org.uk/pdf/IRR_Briefing_No.2.pdf
  5. www.irr.org.uk/2001/september/ak000001.html
  6. ‘Racism or nationalism’, May 6 2009.
  7. R Miles Racism after race relations London 1993, p46.
  8. E Balibar, I Wallerstein Race, nation, class: ambiguous identities London 1991, p60.
  9. www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/pressreleases/stories/2008/03_march/06/white.shtml